When you are hurtling through adolescence, overcome with warring emotions and desperately trying to learn a whole new set of rules for status and interaction, everything you thought you knew seems suspect and even your own body is completely unfamiliar and terrifyingly out of control. It sometimes seems that the best anchor to keep you from levitating off the ground over the intense humiliation and the overwhelming injustice of it all is to adopt an air of ferocious perpetual exasperation and disdain. But what keeps you going are those few moments when a tantalizing glimpse of the possibility of pure pleasure provokes the ultimate accolade: “Sweet!”
So, when our eponymous hero, Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) climbs onto the schoolbus and slumps into a seat in the back and an admiring younger kid asks him, “What are you going to do today, Napoleon?” his reply is, “Whatever I feel like I want to do! Gosh!” Then whatever he feels like he wants to do turns out to be tying a muscle man action figure to a string and throwing it out the window to pull along behind the bus. Sweet!
And when he he opens the door to find a shy classmate peddling Glamour Shot photos and lanyard keychains, he disdainfully tells her, “I got like a finity of those I made in summer camp.”
And when his older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) taunts him, “Napoleon, don’t be jealous that I’ve been chatting online with babes all day. Besides, we both know I’m trying to become a cage fighter,” he replies, “Since when? We both know you’ve got like the worst reflexes of all time!” Then he has to try to prove it, and it appears that in the race for that title, they may be in a tie.
And when Napoleon sees his new friend Pedro’s (Efren Ramirez) bike, he says, “Dang! Ever take it off any sweet jumps?” When he tries, it doesn’t work out very well.
Life seems so unfair. Women only like men who’ve got skills, and to Napoleon that means numbchuck skills, computer hacking skills, or maybe some really sweet dance moves. Those endless arms and legs don’t seem to want to cooperate well. Heder is a brilliant physical performer, showing us everything about Napoleon in the way he stands, sits, walks, and responds to everything just a half-second too late.
Then there’s Napoleon’s uncle and his schemes to make a lot of money and go back in time to that crucial turning point in a high school football game, Pedro’s campaign for class president against alpha girl Summer (played by Haylie Duff, older sister of Hillary), and what happens when Kit’s online babe shows up. And the young photographer who tells her subject, “Just imagine you’re weightless, in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by tiny little seahorses.”
The movie’s deliriously specific detail, superb use of the Idaho setting, affection for its characters, unexpected developments, and most of all its genuine sweetness keep us laughing with Napoleon, not at him. He may be clueless, but he has a great heart and we know he will be fine, not just for a satisfyingly happy ending for the movie but beyond. He might even develop enough perspective on his life to be able to make a movie about it.
This movie is the first feature from 24-year-old director Jared Hess, who wrote the film with his wife Jerusha. They met co-producer Jeremy Coon and 26-year-old John Heder at Brigham Young University. To put it in Napoleon’s terms, they all got skills. I’m looking forward to whatever they do next.
Parents should know that the movie contains some implied sexual encounters between adults. School bullies use headlocks and punches. There are some accidents used for comic effect and an animal is killed off-screen. A character sells purportedly breast size-enhancing herbs. Parents should make sure that kids and teens know that it can be very dangerous to give personal information to people you meet online. A strength of the movie is the friendship between Napoleon and Pedro.
Families who see this movie should talk about the writers’ answer when asked when it takes place: “Idaho.” How does it seem like or not like your own experiences of adolescence? How would you list your skills? Does Napoleon seem like the kind of guy who will be able to write a movie like this just a few years later?
Families who appreciate this movie will also enjoy Gregory’s Girl, Lucas, My Bodyguard and, for more mature audiences, Rushmore, Election and American Splendor.